Updated: Apr 5, 2022
On this International Mentoring Day (17 Jan 2022), we pay tribute to the many who have offered their time and wisdom to others who come after them. Those of us fortunate enough to have had a great mentor in our careers know it was priceless to have found and developed such a relationship. It only makes sense for us to offer some of this back to others when such opportunities arise.
I’ve always enjoyed the interesting conversations I've had with engineers and other professionals in various stages of their careers with the desire & passion to make a difference in their profession. This article is compiled from my LinkedIn posts from an earlier “Converging over Coffee” series, and re-published to mark International Mentoring Day.
I've picked 5 popular themes, condensed from actual conversations with engineers, technologists & project managers, to unpack & share some personal thoughts in the context of the world we find ourselves in today.
Do we need to redefine what Technical Competencies are?
How are we looking at the idea of Contribution & Self-Discovery?
What does Self Awareness mean and how do we go further to build that?
Can we actually be Future Ready and how?
How can we do much better at Relationship Building?
All about technical competencies
We all started our professional journeys by learning fundamental, technical competencies. The first few years of a professional career, we’re working hard to find ways to use what we spent years in school studying and learning practical applications of these technical competencies. All perfectly normal and mostly a smooth ride, until one day we’re told that’s not quite enough anymore. Or maybe no one tells us, but we slowly realize that work is stagnating and together with that, our career progression.
Avoiding this malaise - which tends to show up after the first few professional years - takes a shift in the definition of “technical” to start thinking broader instead of just deeper. It’s NOT a choice between going broader OR going deeper. It’s a false premise to assume that expanding beyond traditional technical competencies means becoming less technical or not going deeper technically.
Instead, going broader generates fresh, more complex perspectives & problems statements that forces us to be more proficient, more creative in how we use traditional technical competencies to find solutions. Doing this also means you will find yourself solving bigger, more worthy problems.
Go broader to go deeper. Go further with the problems to go further with your professional journey.
Contribution & self-discovery
Contribution - the desire to have an impact - is a huge topic today. Understandably so, as it is an integral element of the human spirit. Whether spoken or unspoken, conscious or subconscious, you can bet that it is on every young or senior professional’s mind.
It is true that for some jobs, it is inherently easy to see how they are meaningful in the outcomes they produce and that we will likely be making positive impact by being involved. That’s a popular thought and one that corporations use frequently to attract talent. But it’s also true that not everyone onboard will feel like they actually HAVE an impact and many still struggle to find it. You might be someone like that. I definitely went through several patches of that, even when working on important, impactful projects.
Self-discovery I believe is the missing link. The source of impact & contribution isn’t external (something the job will give us) and isn’t passive. Impact & contribution is meant to be proactive and meant to be internal (something we have to learn and turn into acts that we build upon progressively). Lots we can do to advance our state of self-discovery but starting to reframe things from external to internal is a great start. Whether we're working on a meaningful project or a more routine one, it pays to always question how we might make the best use of our strengths to create stronger impact - internally driven & proactive. Progress is slow when we wait for meaningful tasks to come along - externally driven & passive.
So in short... Don’t just crave to have an impact. Go make an impact.
I’m aware that even though it comes up often during conversations, I can’t really tell if most people have the same experience with self awareness as I have. I guess the self awareness journey is quite personal. For me, my initial understanding of what it is and my evolving (not final) appreciation of what it really means were quite different. A little tricky to articulate but I will give it a shot.
While it started with a curiosity about things like personality, emotional intelligence, and strengths finding… over time, I realize that the essence was in clarifying the relationship between each of these things about myself and the environment, specifically each of the ecosystems I find myself in on the personal as well as professional front.
Self awareness is about understanding strengths as well as perspectives, for both ourselves and these ecosystems. It takes an appreciation of the distinct roles between self and the ecosystem, but understanding that the ecosystem is also an extension of self. What does this boil down to? I think it means how we interact with the ecosystem means even more than what we bring to it.
In practice, self awareness is acknowledging and accepting the current version of self, but knowing that the current version can and will evolve. It isn’t insisting “well, this is just me” but allowing for “this is clearly me now, so let me see how I can grow it in my current environment”. Self awareness is not limiting but liberating.
Tap on your strengths confidently. Access the ecosystem’s strengths openly.
It’s probably too obvious for me to say that the future for engineers lie in cleantech and infrastructure. I think this is where there is both the space as well as the need for creativity and innovation to take hold and create real tangible outcomes. Cleantech and infrastructure needs will continue to grow in importance in our lifetimes. While I believe that to the core, I must remember that there is still a personal element to how our interpretation of possible futures drives what we do today. And that’s what this is about.
Why future ready? We can all feel the pace of change these days… with the economy, within industries and in jobs. The practical thought is that being future ready helps ensure that we will continue to have a job, i.e. Safety in terms of career longevity. This is a more traditional, somewhat corporate view, but it’s a bit more nuanced when it comes to the interest of the individual professional.
For the individual, we want to be future ready because we recognize that the journey is more likely to be uneven than stable, that great opportunities for impact & growth are likely to stay hidden until we are sensitized to the world they exist in, and that we need a professional compass to guide us to the opportunities that we can thrive in. In other words, it is possible we haven’t come across the best / right opportunities yet, and having a sense of direction for our professional journey would help.
So which future? For some, choosing a future to be ready for and to invest themselves into seem quite easy. Chances are for most of us, the picture of our future remains fuzzy for a long time and we entertain a number of “could-be” scenarios along the way. Building a compass for these situations requires us to keep ourselves invested in the macro trends, responsive to the latest changes on the ground and receptive to behavioral shifts, not passively but by testing our personal and professional experience against new approaches and in new areas.
Listen to the signals. Experiment readily.
Who needs another talk telling them that networking and relationship building is going to be really important for professional growth? Absolutely no one. We have generally accepted this as fact. But the execution does create anxiety which might be why this still comes up often in the conversations with engineers and other professionals. Some of the concerns below may sound familiar, but a few simple shifts in approach may help us enjoy the relationship building process more.
Not sure how to?
Definitely don’t do “networking”. Collecting contact info & exchanging handshakes (or elbow bumps) is not a substitute for the effort needed to build a genuine relationship. I actually think I’m hopeless at networking, but maybe it’s not something worth being good at. Put the time into building more invested relationships with just a few to begin with.
Not sure when to?
Don’t wait for events & definitely don’t wait till you are transitioning jobs. That’s hard because that is when building relationships feel like a calculated transaction. The time for it is now… in our work teams, in our project teams… where we have logical basis for building natural, productive relationships.
Not sure with whom?
I think it’s normal to be more interested in certain people that match your interests and ambitions, or those who could provide informal mentoring. But I like to allow for an element of serendipity and stay receptive to super interesting people I meet outside my usual domain.
Don’t think you are the social type?
Some people do appear more natural with creating rapport and make building connections look easy. But the right style of relationship building is the style that is natural to us, which might be a more reserved version, but the fact that it’s authentic is why it will actually work.
Beyond the above shifts in approach, these efforts to build rewarding relationships can really elevate everyone involved if we pay attention to creating a personal connection, seeking to not only receive but provide Value and practicing lots of Empathy in the process.